Remote work and people in government
Governments have increasingly adopted remote work due to COVID19. So far, there has been no comparative assessment of how teleworking has affected the public sector. The People in Government Lab, together with an international team of researchers from 12 universities is running a study in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and the United Kingdom to understand the organisational advantages of teleworking, and to evaluate how behavioural sciences can improve public employees’ wellbeing and performance
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have increasingly adopted remote work. This organisational change has imposed new challenges on the public sector and presented a breadth of different perspectives for the future. Governments and public employees worldwide have coped with these circumstances and continued delivering public services to their communities.
So far, there has been no comparative assessment of how remote working has affected public employee’s wellbeing and performance and how behavioural science can help overcome some of the main challenges. The People in Government Lab at Oxford University, together with an international team of researchers from 12 different institutions, including Harvard University, Duke University, Utrecht University, and Chile University, among others, is running a set of experiments in four different countries (Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and United Kingdom) with two purposes: 1) to understand the organisational advantages of hybrid working in the public sector, and 2) to evaluate how behavioural sciences can help to improve public employees’ performance and wellbeing.
According to the Duke Remote Work Survey (2020) and several exploratory interviews conducted with public employees in June and July 2020, people working in government are facing several unprecedented challenges while working remotely – such as the lack of boundaries between private and professional life, technology limitations, or longer working journeys - which all can impact productivity and well-being. Out of the many challenges cited by the public servants, we decided to focus on issues that were flagged as two of the most important barriers to well-being and productivity:
● Time spent in unproductive work. The public servants who answered the Duke Survey reported themselves as up to 40% less productive while working from home during the pandemic. These results are highly related to lack of self-control (Duke Remote Work Survey, 2020). In this context, finding ways to improve self-control as a means to raise performance and well-being outcomes is relevant and can be done by adopting strategies of goal-setting, planning, and measuring results.
● Social isolation/lack of human interaction. Being compelled to telework, people experience fewer social interactions than in their usual work setting (Duke Remote Work Survey, 2020), potentially affecting productivity and well-being. This issue could be minimised by looking at the process of organizational socialization, increasing opportunities for social interactions among colleagues, managers and employees.
We developed two behavioural informed interventions for workers in the public sectors:
1. GOAL, BLOCK AND MEASURE (GBM): This intervention aims to strengthen self-control to improve productivity and well-being. To achieve this result, the intervention is designed to encourage public servants to set work-related goals, to plan the actions needed to reach them, and to measure their success in meeting their goals. Organisers have also designed simple accountability mechanisms to secure higher compliance with the actions defined by the public employees.
2. BUILDING SOCIAL TIES (BST): This intervention aims to build/strengthen social ties among workers to improve productivity and well-being. To make it happen, researchers will adopt an intervention that use virtual channels to foster social ties inside public organizations.
The interdisciplinary and collaborative cross-border approach has allowed us to create a hub of academics, practitioners and decision-makers that exchange knowledge and learn from each other while applying behavioural sciences, experimental methods and designing evidence-based policies. The project as a whole will allow them to pinpoint which interventions and working methods help foster productivity and well-being with the new organizational landscape set by the pandemic.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Three main characteristics make the project innovative:
1) New topic in the public sector and comparative perspective: So far, there has been no comparative assessment of how remote working has affected public employee’s wellbeing and performance.
2) Behavioural perspective: This research project aims to evaluate the effectiveness of behavioural-informed interventions, together with our government partners we have design two behavioural-informed interventions to improve public employees’ wellbeing and performance while working remotely.
3) Interdisciplinary and cross-border collaboration: Organisers have integrated a team of researchers with expertise in different disciplines to work together with innovation labs in five different public agencies in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and the United Kingdom. This collaborative approach has allowed them to build interventions that can be applied in different contexts and to learn from each other experiences.
What is the current status of your innovation?
In May 2021, organisers will be running the first pilot of the experiment in the four countries. To make this possible they have designed and translated the evaluation instrument and the interventions in three different languages. In August 2021, organisers will run the field experiment in collaboration with their government partners.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Reserach team (People in Government Lab, Harvard University, Duke University, University of Surrey, University of Illinois, Utrecht University, Chile University, and IDC Herzliya) contributes to the research work.
Government Partners: Innovation labs -the People Lab UK, Labora Lab Brazil, Innovation Lab Colombia- provide their knowledge and experience, as well as databases.
Public employees across all the government agencies who voluntary accept to collaborate and participate in the study
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The main goal of the project is to improve public employees’ wellbeing. The purpose is to contribute to creating a more efficient public service by improving public employees’ motivation, performance, and effectiveness. Government partners are adopting the behavioural and experimentation perspectives as well as creating an international network to exchange ideas and collaborate in future projects.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
This project will use experimental methods to test whether the two behavioral-informed interventions defined above (GBM and BST) increase the productivity and well-being of public servants working from home. GBM would do so by strengthening self-control, while BST increases organizational socialization. The research will rely on both subjective and objective data to test the hypotheses (surveys, administrative documents, and data). Supporting our interventions, several innovative forms of measurements will be included in the study: coupling the big-data survey approach, we will tap into psychometric attributes (e.g., self-reported scales) and psychophysiological underpinnings of people’s behaviors over the course of the study. This effort represents one of the first approaches in the field of government studies that leverage both a large population of workers and uses such objective approaches.
Challenges and Failures
Through the project, organisers have faced two main challenges:
• Strategy allies: It was a challenge to find strategic allies within the governments that would be willing to support the research, cooperate, and implement the recommendations resulting from the study. As well as getting the support of the top leaders of the agencies. However, once organisers had built trust and agreed on the importance of the project, we have had all the support needed.
• Access to data and legal agreements. To guarantee the protection of the data they have signed agreements with each agency in the four governments, which has represented a huge legal and administrative effort.
In the future, organisers foresee an important challenge related to the integration of the data, as the data will be in different formats. However, we are working together with our government partners to prevent this potential challenge.
Conditions for Success
Strategic allies inside the government: Cooperation by the head of the offices involved in the intervention
A complete, up-to-date database of public employees’ information
An applied-research unit that believes in the importance of designing solutions for public problems and with institutional liaison capabilities to form solid alliances with government and academic institutions
Sponsorship to make any necessary assessment of the contexts and conditions where the intervention will be placed
Strategic dissemination and buying of the final results
These interventions have the potential to become a relevant policy to be implemented in different countries and contexts because of their efficacy and cost-effectiveness. The People in Government Lab together with the team of researchers aim to repeat the exercise in more countries and to explore the replication of the experiment in other levels of government (state or municipal), as well as other public institutions. This, to find ways to increase public employees’ wellbeing and performance in multiple contexts and continue the path towards making governments better worldwide.
The most inspiring lesson has been to learn that working together -academics and governments- can make innovation within the public sector possible. The alliance between innovative laboratories and universities can lead us to have a better understanding and improve the lives of a wider number of people. In the process, everybody learns, and the potential for future cooperation increases. This is an alternative to the usual implementation of policies: by experimenting, we can pilot a policy first, go back, tweak it, and maybe try it again before extensively implementing it. Having shown this to government institutions, it may open the door for future similar interventions.
In the future, we can continue exploring the power of behavioural sciences to contribute with useful and cost-effective insights that could help us solve multiple interrelated problems in different countries, such as public employees’ motivation, government effectiveness, collaboration and public service delivery.